Titos Patrikios is a poet of witness and engagement. A member of the intellectual left in post-war Greece, he survived imprisonment, hard labor, censorship, and exile. He narrowly escaped death by firing squad, and once had to bury his poems to keep them from discovery by the authorities. Patrikios endured years away from his home country, Greece, and was displaced from his family and literary community. His style bears the marks of that pressure and of his persistent need to pursue what might suffice in spite of such predicaments. At times reminiscent of Hikmet, Neruda, and Milosz, Patrikios’s poems sound a note of defiant celebration. This poet’s ethos is utterly humanistic and his impulses are toward praise as often as they are toward protest.
Titos Patrikios belongs in the twentieth-century pantheon with Yiannis Ritsos, Nazim Hikmet, and Pablo Neruda. He writes out of a deep and anguished humanity; his work is earthy, unremitting, noble. The Lions’ Gate brings a significant Greek poet into English with exemplary care and clarity.
These fine translations, rendering a selection from some fifteen volumes of Titos Patrikios’s work over a period of 54 years, demonstrate why his voice has come to be recognized as one of the most compelling in Greek poetry since the Second World War. Heir to Seferis and Ritsos, he shares with these precursors the capacity to raise his personal vision and sensibility to a level that illuminates the tragic climate of his country in harsh years of civil war, dictatorship, exile, and disillusionment. During the course of his prolific career, the poet’s imagery blossoms from its surrealist roots into a brighter, simpler mode, an access to wisdom and human understanding that is without sentimentality but that offers the prospect of a certain resolution however contrary the times. That this development remains clear in this English version of Patrikios’s work is testimony to the persistent care and high quality of these translations.
The elegant translators have given us a perfectly fluent and flawless version of the poems of Titos Patrikios, a poet who is a mirror of five decades of Greek history. I am drawn most to the meticulous snapshot poems that catch a moment of love, politics, Greek life. Whitman’s poignantly acute Civil War poems come to mind. Here is an amazing example of the poet and his translators: “Every morning the sun rises behind the guardhouses / wearing filthy hospital pajamas, / crossing slowly the courtyard of the sky. / After so many years / it too has taken up the habits of the detainees.” (“Habits of the Detainees”) Patrikios is a sun and star figure in modern Greek poetry.
Utterly free of sentimentality or self-pity, Titos Patrikios’s poems have an edge honed by many difficult years of exile. How remarkable, then, that the predominant impression left by The Lions’ Gate is of joy—a joy no less radiant for being hard-won. “My flesh / always hurts when beaten, / always rejoices when caressed. / It hasn’t learned a thing.” (“Flesh”) Bakken and Konsolaki’s translations, poised and clear, do justice to the economy and force of the original Greek. This is a beautiful and heartening collection.